Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

| 22 Aug 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

American enthusiasts tend to idealise – if not idolise – California as it was in the 1950s and ’60s, when large and often outrageously styled automobiles ruled the streets and boulevards.

It was a great time to be young, especially if you loved sports cars, muscle cars and hot rods.

Having been in the midst of it all, Rick Lorenzen can certainly relate.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Rick Lorenzen’s Lions Drag Strip Museum is a celebration of the outrageous competition cars from the 1950s and ’60s

Growing up in Wilmington, near Los Angeles, Lorenzen had the good fortune of regularly visiting Lions Drag Strip, located a few miles away from his home, starting in the late 1950s until it closed in ’72. 

He took a liking for the Gas categories opened to a variety of hot rods, which originally prowled the streets of America and later evolved into track-only vehicles.

These cars, nicknamed gassers, quickly became very popular with the crowds.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Community safety was the inspiration for the original Lions Drag Strip

The 1930s and early ’40s Willys models proved especially competitive, so Lorenzen bought a 1941 coupe in 1960 for just $65.

He still owns it to this day, although it has remained untouched since 1964 because he never quite finished his own gasser project. 

It takes pride of place within his collection, housed in an industrial building in Rancho Dominguez, which is itself just a short distance from the original Lions Drag Strip site.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

A replica of a 1959 rail dragster, on loan to the Lions Drag Strip Museum

The large structure houses Price Transfer, a company founded in 1934 that specialises in the transportation of goods from the nearby Long Beach harbour.

Lorenzen, who has been CEO since the ’70s, bought a few Willys through the years and, as their numbers grew, he decided to convert a corner of Price Transfer’s warehouse into a workshop – along with a place to store his cars.

The real metamorphosis began around 15 years ago, when he decided to properly display his fleet in an appropriate environment.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The colourful painted grandstand flanks the museum’s replica starting line

“I’m a 1950s and ’60s guy,” he says.

“So, I started with the diner in the showroom.

“I then concentrated on building store fronts that reminded me of the ’50s.”

A fuel station followed – specifically a replica of the local Texaco outlet, complete with pumps, which his parents had managed during the 1950s.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The Lions Drag Strip Museum’s dramatic murals were produced by a three-artist team

Around 80 American-made vehicles have since invaded the space, christened the Lions Automobilia Foundation & Museum.

But Lorenzen hadn’t quite finished with the construction, having planned to open an adjacent hall devoted solely to the Lions Drag Strip – and that’s what we’re visiting today.

The Lions Drag Strip Museum was inaugurated in June 2019, its mission to honour the legacy of drag racers in southern California car culture and preserve it for future generations.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Holy Toledo is an early Jeep-based Funny Car from 1968

Although it’s an institution Stateside, most European enthusiasts have limited knowledge of the Lions race track, whose gates were first opened in 1955.

The quarter-mile strip of blacktop was set up as an alternative to the rampant street racing of the time, offering the younger crowd a place to play.

This led to its to-the-point motto: ‘Drive the Highways – Race at Lions.’

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

In 1966, the Beaver Hunter dragster crossed the line at Lions Drag Strip in 8.7 secs and at 187mph

Funding came via nine chapters of the Lions Club, a social organisation involved with local communities, which managed to raise the $45,000 needed to begin construction.

Attracting 15,000 spectators, the first event was a resounding success.

Afterwards, however, the strip struggled financially for a couple of years, due in part to the fact that it was only open for competition on Sundays.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The ‘Swindler 2’ Willys Coupe run by the Stone, Woods & Cook team is a favourite of Rick Lorenzen

When the great driver Mickey Thompson later took over the operation and opened the track on Saturday nights as well, its future was secured.

Lorenzen has great admiration for the people who raced at Lions in period.

“The museum is my tribute to them,” he explains.

“I wanted to recreate my experiences through a Lions Drag Strip in miniature form.”

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Team Rieker’s supercharged 1933 Willys V8 coupe

Though he was never a high-level competitor, Lorenzen still had his moments of fun, especially during the late 1950s when he helped a friend who regularly entered a hopped-up Ford Model A.

Visitors to the Lions Drag Strip Museum will discover three main sections in the large hall, each based on specific eras of competition: 1955-’62, 1962-’67 and 1967-’72.

You can’t help but notice the stunning murals produced by motorsport artist Kenny Youngblood and his two assistants, Yvonne Mecialis and Keith Moreland.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Rick Lorenzen regularly takes his Oldsmobile 88 to shows

This labour of love took a year and a half for the team to produce, but the results are spectacular.

Nothing was left to chance, including the grandstands depicting well-known drag racers of the time.

“We took a lot of the details, such as the shirts worn by the crowd, from pictures that were taken in period, trying to make the scene very authentic,” confirms Lorenzen.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Rails, gassers and muscle cars are represented, here fronted by Tom Jacobson’s 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne

The museum houses painted signs, too, mixing recreations with originals – one of the latter listing the nine Lions Club chapters.

The vast collection of memorabilia extends to historic car-club mementos and jackets, plus handwritten run sheets.

Thompson’s first wife, Judy, was kind enough to provide numerous vintage photographs and the first 10 years of time slips, showing every single run made at Lions.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The museum’s automobilia includes tributes to car clubs

Tragically, no fewer than 12 drivers lost their lives while competing at the strip, and there’s a special display dedicated to them.

Several glass cases celebrate some of the most famous racers, including Thompson himself, along with Don Prudhomme and Art Chrisman.

While he owns several cars displayed in the museum, Lorenzen is quick to point out that many others were either donated or are on loan.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Rick Lorenzen’s detailed tribute to the Lions Drag Strip opened in 2019

The recreation of the starting line remains a favourite visitor experience, thanks to more than a dozen vehicles seemingly ready to make a pass down the imaginary track.

The décor features some outstanding details, from the tyre marks to the ‘Christmas tree’ lights, along with the tower set above the three lanes.

The scenery involves a few more famous portraits – Thompson can be found on the rear of the same building.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The faithful recreation of the Lions’ starting line is a favourite visitor experience

About 30 cars pepper the floor – some that raced at Lions, others accurate recreations.

The fleet includes several Funny Cars, such as the very unusual Jeep-bodied Holy Toledo, as well as front-engined dragsters including John Peters’ impressive twin-engined Freight Train.

And if you are a fan of the Fuel Altered class, you’ll find the memorable Pure Hell and Winged Express parked in front of the Christmas tree, with towering superchargers sitting atop their V8s.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

Visitors can pore over the details of the museum’s monstrous dragster exhibits

Inevitably, Lorenzen has his favourites within the museum, starting with the blue Willys Coupe dubbed Swindler 2 and run by the Stone, Woods & Cook team. 

“It inspired me to buy my first Willys,” he says.

He also adores his black 1950 Oldsmobile 88, equipped with an Hilborn-injected 394cu in (6.5-litre) V8.

Classic & Sports Car - Classic shrine: Lions Drag Strip Museum

The nearby Long Beach Grand Prix is also celebrated at the museum

But don’t be misled into thinking that this collection is only for quarter-milers. 

One large area of the hall celebrates the nearby Long Beach Grand Prix, an IndyCar Series race that Lorenzen has attended since 1975.

More evocative murals surround the cars, once again adding real atmosphere to the static displays.

Rick Lorenzen’s museum is home to a spectacular collection of drag racing vehicles

Lorenzen credits his daughter Tami Lorenzen-Fanselow, director Rob Marchese and assistant Amanda Currey for their dedication to the project, particularly over recent tough years.

COVID-19 restrictions have now eased, but the museum is only open on a limited basis every Saturday – see the website for further information to make sure you don’t miss a tour.

There is simply no other museum like it.

Words and images: Stephan Szantai

The knowledge

  • Name Lions Automobilia Foundation & Museum
  • Address 2790 East Del Amo Blvd, Rancho Dominguez, CA 90221, USA
  • Where 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, California
  • How much? $16 per person
  • Opening hours 9am-3pm on Saturdays, by appointment
  • Tel 001 310 223 3470
  • Web


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